Perhaps you’ve heard of the “butterfly effect,” wherein a small change leads to a seismic and seemingly unrelated outcome. In 2023, my outdoor gear collection experienced a butterfly effect of its own that began when my four-year-old daughter switched preschools. The move brought with it an upgrade from half- to full-day childcare, which freed up an hour or so of my life every weekday.
I hatched grand plans for my newfound flexibility. I’d write a novel or remodel our bathroom. Maybe I’d earn millions investing in crypto.
Oh how foolish I was. In the end I spent most of that free time riding my bicycle. Rather than commit myself to getting rich or doing chores, I instead signed up for three bike races: the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic road race, Silver Rush 50 mountain-bike event, and The Rad gravel race. Registering for races meant I simply had to train for them. So, I returned to the weekly group race ride in Boulder and also competed in nearly two-dozen races on Zwift, the virtual cycling platform. In short, at age 42, I cosplayed as a Tour de France bicyclist, all while my to-do list of household chores got longer than the unfilled crack in my driveway.
Pretending to be a bike racer requires plenty of gizmos and doohickeys, and in 2023, my gear of choice included products that helped me achieve personal greatness in cycling’s version of beer-league softball. Throughout the year I bought, borrowed, and tested gear that made my bicycles faster, helped me train harder, and generally allowed me to live out my goofy fantasy.
Cadex 36 tubeless disc road wheels ($2,500)
Can you buy speed? My friend and Fast Talk Podcast host Trevor Connor tackled this topic back in 2016 with an episode titled “How Much Speed Can $2,000 Buy?” Connor determined the most effective use of the cash (for a road cyclist, anyway) was to purchase an aerodynamic and lightweight set of carbon-fiber racing wheels. Connor’s wisdom rattled in my brain as I prepared for Colorado’s famed Iron Horse Bicycle Classic, a 55-mile road race from Durango to Silverton. Half of the route is on flat terrain, where aerodynamics are important, and the other half tackles two soaring mountain passes, where saving weight is paramount. Thus, I sought out wheels to test that combined both qualities, and focused on the Cadex 36 wheelsystem.
These hoops boast all of the cutting-edge technology that is standard in the top-end models from brands like Zipp, Roval, and Enve. Ceramic bearings help them spin longer and faster; high-tensile aerodynamic carbon-fiber spokes trim weight and add stiffness; hookless rim technology removes more weight. After I changed out my four-year-old Bontrager wheelset for the new Cadex, my bicycle became a rocket. I felt the most dramatic change when accelerating on moderate inclines—I was able to catch up to attacking riders on the Wednesday morning group ride, when normally I would have never attempted to give chase.
No, I did not win the Iron Horse, but I had a blast churning up those long and punishing passes. (Buyers take note: hookless rim technology requires hookless-compatible tubeless tires.)
Shimano XC5 SPD lace-up shoes (Discontinued)
I love BOA closure systems, but alas, they do not love my freaky size-13 feet. My tootsies are long, low-volume, and extremely narrow—like water skis attached to my ankles. Most size-13 clodhoppers, on the other hand, are also extremely wide, which means I must ratchet or buckle my footwear to the tightest setting, which over time destroys plastic parts. (I own a sizable—and growing—collection of completely roached BOA dials and frayed laces from all of that ratcheting.)
Over the years I have gravitated toward lace-up cycling shoes, and in 2017 I received a pair of Shimano’s lace-up XC5 mountain bike shoes to test. My feet delighted in the fit, and I made them my go-to shoe for riding road, gravel, and singletrack. But after three years of constant use, they were reduced to tattered Kleenex. It was then I discovered that Shimano had discontinued its lace-up design (gasp) in favor of BOA dials. Last year I returned to BOA technology with a predictable outcome. So, for 2023, I spent several weeks scanning eBay until I found this used set of 2017 XC5 SPD shoes for sale for $80. I scooped them up and my feet have never been happier.
Shokz OpenRun wireless headphones ($99)
These wireless Shokz OpenRun headphones were the best Christmas present I got last year (thanks Mom!) They’re so light that I regularly forget I have them on. Plus, the simple design makes them durable and impervious to sweat—trust me, I’m a gusher. I’ve used Shokz headphones for several years, and they’re as durable as they come—the only reason I ever had to buy new ones is to replace a pair I lost. The battery life has remained consistent, and the audio quality is crisp and clear.
Salomon Elixir Hybrid HD jacket ($250)
This year I had to finally put my favorite mid-layer hoodie out to pasture. After several years of dawn-patrol ski sessions and chilly outings, my old Black Diamond Coefficient hoody was thread-bare and full of holes. I went on the hunt for a replacement. In November I attended a Salomon launch for the new Elixir GTX hiking shoes, and attendees also got to try out the brand’s newest stretch hoodie, the Elixir Hybrid HD. The snug cut fit me perfectly, and the piece quickly became my go-to coat for brisk morning dog walks. A few weeks ago, I used it for my first ski touring session of the season, and it passed with flying colors, venting my body heat on the ascent while keeping me protected from the wind on the descent. Plus, it’s a featherweight and dries sweat in a matter of minutes. I’m happy to pass the torch from one favorite outdoor garment to the next.
Garmin Edge 520 Plus GPS bike computer ($280)
No, this is not a new bike computer. In fact, my Garmin Edge 520 Plus hasn’t been considered cutting-edge for half a decade. But you know what? Sometimes older technology remains superior to all of the new stuff, and I’m willing to argue with anyone out there that the newer bike computers with touch-screen technology are far inferior to the older ones with push buttons.
This year I got to test out a fancy touch-screen computer with all of the bells and whistles that modern ones afford: route building, navigation, pre-set workouts, and customizable training plans. All of those features are great, but what happens when your touch screen becomes so drenched with sweat that it won’t work? I faced this setback again and again with my fancy newfangled computer, predominantly on climbs, when my sweat output reached maximum level and I’d hunch over the bars. Eventually I ditched the new computer for my trusted Garmin Edge 520 Plus. No, there’s no built-in coach or pre-set workouts. But the Garmin battery lasts for 15 hours and all of the sweat from your forehead won’t jam the controls.
Stages SB20 Smart Bike ($1,999)
Did I mention that I sweat a lot? I have no clue how many gallons of perspiration I expelled in 2023, but most of it oozed out when I was pedaling virtual miles on Zwift. You’ve heard of Zwift, right? The virtual cycling platform essentially turns indoor cycling into a video game—you pedal along on your “smart” bike or trainer (it adjusts the tension based on the virtual terrain you see on screen) while your avatar goes fast or slow, uphill or down, based on the wattage you generate. This goofy invention has utterly revolutionized bike racing in the United States, because it’s incredibly difficult to organize a bike competition on public roads and amazingly simple to stage one in the Zwift metasphere.
While I only competed in three IRL bike races in 2023, I did 19 on Zwift. Yep—that’s a lot of sweat. For my original Zwift setup, I simply affixed my regular road bike (a Canyon Ultimate CF SLX) to a smart trainer. This past February, I took the bike out on a road ride and noticed that my handlebars no longer turned from side to side. It turns out all of my perspiration had soaked into the bike’s headset and rusted out the bearings (I know—gross). So, in the name of bike preservation, I borrowed a Stages SB20 Smart Bike—a stationary rig essentially made for Zwift riding and racing. It’s made to mimic an IRL bike in feel and touch—unlike a spin bike the SB20 allows you to coast and shift gears via buttons. But the relative lack of moving parts and lightweight doodads means the SB20 will survive a tidal wave of perspiration—which is exactly what my body drips onto it during every virtual race.
Goodr Extreme Dumpster Diving sunglasses ($45)
I tested a lot of sunglasses in 2023, including ones that cost upwards of $250. Yet time and again I reached for Goodr’s inexpensive Extreme Dumpster Diving rose-colored shades for my training rides—specifically for outings that were early in the morning, later in the evening, or on days with lots of cloud cover. I give ample credit to the budget-friendly brand for making a good-enough frame for cyclists (the Wrap G frame collection) that provides ample eye coverage. Mating the design with a rose-colored lens gives this model the versatility to perform well in low-light situations. I have yet to try them out for actual real-life dumpster diving.
Lezyne Lite Drive 1000XL bike light ($85)
I buckled down and invested in a good bike headlamp this year, dropping nearly 90 bucks for this eraser-sized Lezyne Lite Drive 1000XL light. I’ve owned so many headlamps over the years, and long ago discovered that the Achilles Heel for all of them isn’t the bulb or the battery, but rather the strap or bracket that mounts the light to your handlebar or helmet. Some lights have overly complex mounts that are impossible to operate in the dark; others feature cheap ones that break after a few months of use. The Lezyne Lite Drive 1000XL has a simple and bombproof design: a chubby rubber strap that wraps around your handlebar and connects to a metal hook. I can put it onto my bike while wearing a blindfold. The light is simple to operate and features just one button that toggles you through eight different modes. The brightest setting (1,000 lumens) may give you a suntan. The second-brightest is more than you need to see the road or trail.
FasCat Coaching Optimize App ($35 monthly)
I was pretty burned out on riding my bike by the time November rolled around, but I still wanted to stay in shape and build fitness for 2024. So I sought out a weight-lifting routine for the winter. You see, next year is when I really plan to score the big results! Needing some inspiration (and accountability for working out), I downloaded the Optimate App by Boulder-based coaching company FasCat. I’ve been friends with FasCat’s founder, Frank Overton, for more than a decade, and can still remember when he ruled the group rides in town. Overton started coaching top professionals and weekend warriors alike years ago, and in 2022 he packaged all of his wisdom and workouts—even a ton of meal plans and recipes—into a handy app for your smartphone.
And the thing is so easy to use. After downloading it, you simply click on a series of tiles that help design a training plan for you. Are you preparing for a race? Trying to lose weight? Or just building general fitness on the bike? I opted for the ten-week weight-training plan, and as I write this I’m halfway through. The workouts are fun and easy, and the app guides me through the lifts and the weight I’m supposed to add or subtract each time. I cannot promise that this app will propel me onto a podium in 2024.
Tiny Town printed hat ($20)
I did not attain a podium finish at my bike races this year. But if I had, I would have absolutely worn this cool hat from the Tiny Town Gallery in Tucson, Arizona onto the box. Located just west of the University of Arizona campus on Tucson’s historic Fourth Avenue, Tiny Town is a go-to spot for artists, hipsters, and college kids. The gallery features the designs of artist group Tanline Printing, and the company’s shirts, hats, and stickers will catch anyone’s attention.
More 2023 Gear Reviews